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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

flyover country

(1990’s | journalese (film) | “the heartland,” “middle America,” “America’s breadbasket”)

While this term ought to be restricted to areas between the east and west coasts of the United States, it can be used for any region that feels marginalized in national politics or popular entertainment. At its largest, flyover country includes everything except the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York. In other words, it’s where the elites don’t live and never go. As you might expect, when people refer to their own town or state as flyover country, they usually direct a healthy dose of resentment at the powers that be. It is generally attributed to such arrogant, out-of-touch snobs by residents of the Midwest or where have you, and has been from the beginning.

The phrase begins to appear in LexisNexis after 1985 — generally attributed at the time to Hollywood jet-setters — and seems to have become firmly established in the nineties. The McVeigh bombing in 1995 may have helped push it into prominence; terrorism wasn’t supposed to happen so far from the power centers, and the term got more of a workout than usual. By 2000, it shed quotation marks and explanations and became easily understood shorthand for average Americans unrepresented in political and media centers. The distinction between a small cadre of officials in the capital who make the laws and the great majority of the population intentionally excluded from such deliberations is very old; it has underlain our entire political history as a nation and has animated both left-wing and right-wing activism. Without flyover country there would be no populism, although the term would have made no sense until the fifties, long after populism was invented. There are some old expressions for the salt of the earth and the great mass of land they call home, but few capture quite the depth of elite contempt (“great unwashed” referred to a different group of people, for example).

Whether the elite actually feel the disdain assigned to them is an open question. Federal officials can’t possibly craft policies that serve every locality; no matter what you do, someone somewhere will be unhappy. What looks like disregard for local necessities and wisdom may just result from balancing of a complicated set of interests. Hollywood types may well scorn the vast majority of their audience, but their scorn extends beyond flyover country to include most of their local compatriots, many of whom are just plain folks. But the expression is far more often used by its supposed targets than by bureaucrats yanking away another right or film directors offending more sensibilities. Movie executives or powerful officials are rarely quoted using the expression, and if the term ever flourished among the wielders of power, it was quickly co-opted by its targets to attack the aristocrats. Like other terms defiantly adopted by oppressed minorities, it often has a defensive cast.

The adoption of the expression by the slighted majority marks an unusually quick, smooth instance of linguistic jiu-jitsu. “Flyover country” apparently never had a chance to establish itself among the elites before the hoi polloi laid claim to it and turned it into a badge of honor. It’s a nice trick: a quick, widely-grasped phrase turned on its head to attack the adversary. The biter bit! The process is not unusual, but the speed and seamlessness are. “Queer” really was a put-down for decades before the gay community co-opted it (and that process took some time). Same with “redneck” or “Chicano.” But no sooner does “flyover country” appear in the lexicon than its targets snap it up and make it theirs.

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